The King of Gonzo journalism had it right after all: “The television business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs..” — Hunter S. Thompson.
A lot of “good men” and women have died in those plastic hallways.
The current cat fight between Canadian cable operators, broadcasters and their regulator (CRTC), over local TV, will have even more casualities.
For the uninformed: In a nutshell Canadian broadcasters want the rule book rewritten so that cable operators must pay for local programs, something the cable operators have been getting for free. Now that advertising revenue is drying up, the broadcasters cannot afford to be as generous as they were in the past. Both sides have been spending a lot of money on expensive full page newspaper ads as well as television person-on-the street campaigns with what appears to be “real viewers” bemoaning the possibility of a TV fee that would be passed on to them.
Ultimately, the outcome of this debate could decide the future of television as we know it in Canada.
The fact is, the redefinition of local TV has been going on for decades–particularly as it relates to local TV news programming. The problem is, it appears few people seem to like the new definition.
I recall attending a discussion a few years ago on the future of TV news at a Canadian Association of Broadcasters conference and listening to a private network president bemoan the fact that people were “using our (news) content” and not paying for it. At the time he was really talking about the early emergence of independent websites offering news content.
He never did explain to what he meant by “news”, who decides what “news” is and who really owns it.
At the same conference a very bright man from the MIT Media Lab told the gathering that the true definition of technology is anything that was invented after you were born. He went on to say that the future of TV is not in broadcasting but “whispering”; meaning meeting the individual needs of viewers.
The future is online — true convergence with print, television (what’s left of it) and the Internet. It has taken Canadian broadcasters a while to realize this.
In the latest issue of the New York Times Magazine, Nicholas Carr reminds us that “television is escaping the TV set and the cable box. We no longer watch the tube. We watch…a series of tubes.”
Someone once compared the television box as the modern version of the campfire our primitive ancestors used to gather around to share stories about their day; the hunt, a birth, a death, the latest gossip. Now we have multiple campfires in many different villages.
In an era where just about every Tom, Dick, Harry and Mary can be their own “network” boss, local is just a mouse click away. As more and more people are shut out of traditional TV broadcasting because of cultural incompetence on the part of key decision makers in the industry, they are finding other ways of getting their voices out there; offering their version of the “truth.”
Is television as we know it dead? Maybe.
Can it be resurrected? Maybe.
Perhaps it’s time for Canada’s TV industry to realize that the answer to its survival is right in front of them. The rich cultural diversity of this country offers limitless opportunies for new programs, new talent and fresh approaches.
Wonder what would happen if a broadcaster partnered with an organization with deep connections within specific communities to produce local online programs. The content providers would be people from those communities; telling stories about their own communities and other communities as well. Advertisers would know exactly who is watching and how to target their products and services.